Monthly Archives: April 2016

How to editing deemed a national security

images-12Gene editing is now considered a national security threat alongside cyberattacks and nuclear weapons. That is, at least according to the government’s latest annual report on national security threats. The report listed gene editing as a technology that, “probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products.”

Back in 2012, a popular gene editing method known as CRISPR, or “gene drive,” surfaced, which enabled researchers to change the DNA of almost any organism with ease. CRISPR tools target, cut and repair snippets of DNA. According to an article published in Nature, researchers plan to use CRISPR to, “adjust human genes to eliminate diseases, create hardier plants, wipe out pathogens and much more.”

There are plenty of advantages to be reaped from CRISPR, but they are overshadowed by its disadvantages. So much so, that James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, deemed gene editing a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) in the annual worldwide threat assessment report.

A weapon for bio-terrorists

Authorities have been worried that gene editing technologies like CRISPR are a national security threat for a while. With CRISPR, scientists have created gene drives that guarantee an altered gene is inherited by an organism’s offspring and subsequent generations. The FBI, the Pentagon and the United Nations bio-weapons office have been monitoring the technology out of concern that bio-terrorists could use it to bring about mass destruction.

Clapper did not specify why CRISPR has the intelligence community nervous, but several bio-security experts have. In particular, a gene drive that spreads DNA that kills pollinating insects could collapse a country’s agricultural system. Terrorist groups like ISIS could use gene drive to breed super killer mosquitoes, which harbor and transmit deadly diseases.

For this reason, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Senior Associate at the UPMC Center for Health Security, was called on to testify about the dangers of gene editing by a National Academy of Sciences panel last year. He described gene editing as “entomological warfare.”

Although super mosquitoes are an unlikely threat, the threat CRISPR poses to bio-security is real. Since the technology behind gene drive is relatively inexpensive and widely available, countries increase the risk of spurring dangerous biological agents. Recent discoveries, “move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them,” states the report.

Piers Millet, an expert on bioweapons at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said he was surprised that Clapper singled out gene editing on the WMD list, since creating a bioweapon requires a level of expertise in a broad range of technologies.

The unintended consequences of gene editing

The intelligence community is worried about the unintended consequences of CRISPR too – not just the intended consequences of bio-terrorists. Although the goal of CRISPR is to weed out the genetic basis for various illnesses, the technology is not 100 percent effective. Sometimes, gene editing hits more than just a targeted cell. Previous gene therapies have even caused cancer in some patients.

No one is sure what reverberations altering the genome of an organism could have on the environment. It’s not just weeding out genetic defects either. In the era of designer babies, parents would be able to hand-select which traits they wanted for their children. After all, who gets to deem what is regarded as an “improvement” of the genome?

“Humanity does not have the maturity and ethical boundaries to play god with organisms of any kind. CRISPR and other genetic editing techniques are amazing marvels of technology, but great technology combined with a wholesale lack of wisdom can lead to catastrophe on a planet wide scale,”said Mike Adams, the Editor of Natural News.

Furthermore, it is not known how germ line editing will impact future generations. Those genetic changes could be passed down when a person has children. According to John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, germ line editing for clinical use, meaning pregnancy, “is a line that should not be crossed at this time.”

Guidelines and laws about what is and is not allowed by germ line research vary across the globe. Some places ban the research altogether, others allow lab research but not pregnancies, and some have no policies whatsoever. In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health does not fund germ line research, but private funding is permitted.

Americans appear to be just as weary of gene editing as security officials. According to a STAT – Harvard poll, approximately 83 percent of Americans are opposed to germ line editing to improve IQ and appearance. According to that same study, however, 59 percent of Americans thought federal health regulators should approve gene therapy, whereas 30 percent thought they should not.

Engineering Technology

It was a goal of Adolf Hitler, and it is a term that today’s researchers don’t really like to use, but eugenics – the effort to scientifically create a sort of “master race” or super-human – still exists today and, as it turns out, Britain is taking the lead.

As reported by The Spectator, the idea of breeding the best with the best so as to weed out the inferior was an idea that was being entertained in England at the turn of the 20th century. A May 1912 edition of the magazine actually reported the following:

The only way of cutting off the constant stream of idiots and imbeciles and feeble-minded persons who help to fill our prisons and workhouses, reformatories, and asylums is to prevent those who are known to be mentally defective from producing offspring. Undoubtedly the best way of doing this is to place these defectives under control. Even if this were a hardship to the individual it would be necessary for the sake of protecting the race.

Hitler, of course, took this notion to the extreme, murdering millions he deemed inferior to the “Master Aryan Race” as an insurance policy against creating citizens who were mentally or physically defective, as they were once thought to be.

Breeding “perfect” children

In the early 20th century methods of encouraging and fomenting the eugenics mission were simplistic and crude. The “right” people were bribed to have larger families, while the weakest were sterilized. Today, however, advances in in-vitro fertilization (IVF) technology already allow science to screen embryos for inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis. Soon, however, parents will have the ability to check their prospective offspring for any number of traits, from hair color to character, giving them the ability – allegedly – to pick the “perfect” child.

“The era of designer babies, long portrayed by dystopian novelists and screenwriters, is fast arriving,” The Spectator reported. “According to Hank Greely, a Stanford professor in law and biosciences, the next couple of generations may be the last to accept pot luck with procreation. Doing so, he adds, may soon be seen as downright irresponsible.”

And based upon how certain issues are propagandized today, you can easily see that happening: Before the Obama era, for instance, cops were good; working hard and making a great living were positive things; and freedom of expression included all sides of an argument.

In Greely’s forthcoming book, The End of Sex, he outlines a brave new world where mothers are given a menu of sorts that contains various biological options. But even he won’t use the word (eugenics) that describes what he is envisioning. Greely, and nearly all involved in these new biotech developments, avoid use of the word, pretending that history has not made a full circle.

Hailed as a discovery, not a theory

The Spectator notes that the word was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, a polymath who developed fingerprinting and many of the modern statistical research techniques. He began with a theory – a hunch, really – and it was that so many great men come from the same families because genius is hereditary.

Intrigued by the arguments about evolution by his cousin Charles Darwin, Galton began to wonder if advances in healthcare and welfare had soured the national gene pool by allowing more sick and infirmed to survive and disabled people to not only live longer but also reproduce. Off he went to collect his data, only to return with his theory of eugenics.

“This was hailed not as a theory but as a discovery — a new science of human life, with laws as immutable as Newton’s,” The Spectator noted. “A race of gifted men could be created, he said, ‘as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating cretins.'”

Absorbing sheets could double shelf life

Ethylene, a natural gas that’s emitted by fruit and is responsible for hastening the ripening process, may have met its match, thanks to a breakthrough device.

Made by It’s Fresh!, a Food Freshness Technology (FFT) company, the postage stamp-sized device is a filter that absorbs ethylene from fruit. In turn, fruit lasts longer, preserving shelf life and allowing people to enjoy their foods for longer periods of time. You can view the video in this Daily Mail article to view the time lapse which shows for example, how with the filter, strawberries can last up to five days longer than strawberries stored without the technology.

The ethylene filter is an absorbent strip comprised of a clay and mineral blend which company experts maintain is safe and chemical-free. Furthermore, the strip can be thrown in a recyclable bin once it’s used.

Technology focuses more on improving food quality issues

According to Food Freshness Technology’s website, this particular technology is beneficial because it addresses concerns that many have regarding food quality, waste and security.

“FFT has invested in excess of $15m in reaching its aim of bringing to market a range of simple products to reduce waste, protect and increase food quality for the benefit of all,” the site states. “Extending and protecting food quality addresses a number of urgent ethical and financial challenges facing the modern food industry right now. Simple solutions for; [sic] food security in the developing world, driving reductions in supply chainwaste and continuously meeting and beating consumer expectations are all paramount for the successful food business of the future. It is our aim to provide these solutions.”

FFT praises It’s Fresh! saying that it “… is a highly specialised technical innovations company focused on delivering comprehensive solutions for food freshness. These unique technologies are delivered via State-of-the-art materials science developed in partnership with world leading research & technology organisations.”

FFT’s site also addresses undernourishment issues, noting that 1 billion people in the world are suffering from the problem while, “lack of effective, safe and ethical technology to help resolve this matter,” persists.

Food waste a growing problem; ethylene-absorbing sheets could help

In fact, it’s noted that about 7 million tons of food get thrown away by households in the UK every year, usually because the food started to rot or because the use-by date passed. But the issue isn’t just limited to the UK; people living elsewhere are also engaged in wasteful food habits.

In the United States, for example, it’s estimated that people are throwing away approximately 40 percent of our food supply annually. It’s also estimated that the average American family of four tosses the equivalent of upwards of $2,275 in food away every year.

It’s FFT’s hope that the It’s Fresh ethylene-absorbing technology will play a role in combating this problem; by making a food last longer, people will no longer be inclined to let it go to waste as soon as they typically do.

FFT chief technology officer, Lawrence Matthews, says, “It slows the development of rot and extends quality, freshness and flavour.”

Currently, the absorbent strip is used prior to the food transportation process; it’s commonly used by supermarkets for strawberries, plums, avocados, cherries, peaches and many other fruits. The thought that it could eventually be used in the home environment is exciting, because it has the potential to preserve food in a safe manner, unlike some of the toxic ingredients and dangerous methods currently used in the food supply, allowing us to enjoy healthy foods, for longer – and fight the problem of food waste at the same time.